Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Protection vs. Use in Utah
distributed 12/8/17 - ©2017

Last Monday, President Trump went to Utah for a couple of hours to announce a dramatic reduction in the size of two national monuments.

These decisions have been in the works for over six months. There was a fairly short period for public comments (I sent you several action alerts in May and June), and a long wait for the actual details to be announced. It is tragic, but not surprising, that Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments have been slashed. It was obvious from the start that these two were in the crosshairs of the federal review.

It also is clear to me that the review of 21 National Monuments, and the changes being made to a number of them, are not an isolated management decision. The values and perspectives that have been in play in this set of actions are pervasive in this administration. They will be showing up frequently in coming years.

The now-dominant political stance in the White House and both houses of Congress is broadly at odds with the values of an eco-justice perspective. To be effective, our eco-justice political engagement -- whether negotiations, alternative proposals, legal filings, or acts of resistance -- needs to understand the other side. Simplistic stereotypes don't lead to good activism.

The announcement this week about national monuments in Utah provides two clear indicators of perspectives that we need to understand as we live and act in today's political world.

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Through this past year, my friends and colleagues in faith and environmental groups have been working hard -- in their words -- to "protect" the national monuments that were under review. They point to locations and landscapes considered sacred by native people, and to areas of importance for scientific study, both archeological and paleontological. Also valued are places of great natural beauty or intense solitude.

Different language was used by Interior Secretary Zinke in a column yesterday on "Why We Shrunk the Monuments". He wrote (emphasis added):

In recent years ... presidents have abused the Antiquities Act to lock up vast swaths of public land. ... public access, hunting and fishing, and use of private property are restricted. ... The Antiquities Act is not a weapon for presidents to arbitrarily restrict the uses of hundreds of thousands of acres of land to prevent uses like timber harvesting and cattle grazing ... It is also not a tool for presidents to use to restrict access for outdoor recreation on land that belongs to all of us.

How are these federal lands best managed? (It is important to note that the lands in question here have been, and will continue to be, under federal ownership and management. The lands were not taken from the state or private ownership to become monuments. They will not be turned over to others when monument status is removed.)

Where and how should the priority be on protecting and preserving the landscape, and historic and scientific places? Where and how should the emphasis be on the use and extraction of natural resources, or on freedom of access that can be damaging -- such as road construction or the use of off-road vehicles?

In Secretary Zinke's recommendations, and President Trump's actions, the balance swings dramatically away from protection. When Mr. Trump said that "public lands will once again be for public use", I hear an emphasis on uses that impact and change the land and take away resources. I hear, too, a notion of "public" that includes corporations that seek large-scale extraction of fossil fuels and timber. The priority of this administration is on relatively short-term benefits from a richly endowed place.

When protection is given within the now-much smaller monuments, it tends to be for highly-visible and dramatic sites, like the ruins of a "Great House" pueblo or an exceptionally scenic view. Protection is not given to areas with more subtle and widespread importance. The Great Houses all come from the same, very short, historical period, and tell pretty much the same archeological story. The larger landscape speaks of thousands of years of human habitation. Understanding that history requires more than the walls of a cliff dwelling. We need to see ecological and social relationships across a region and spreading through centuries. The Trump administration does not seem to recognize the importance of those wide-spread treasures at Bears Ears, or the correspondingly rich fossil records in Grand Staircase.

A story in the Salt Lake Tribune notes that "Two of the nation's most scientifically significant landscapes -- the Kaiparowits Plateau and Cedar Mesa -- could be largely stripped of hard-won protections ... The areas form the hearts of their respective national monuments, yet portions of them were targeted for removal" from the monuments.

Both protection and use are legitimate goals of government policy. This week's announcement about the monuments in Utah are a clear indicator of the degree to which this administration emphasizes use, and the very narrow categories that it recognizes for protection.

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The other important indicator that I see in the national monument announcement has to do with matters of local control and local benefit. Whose desires and interests are given the greatest consideration?

Mr. Trump said, "The families and communities of Utah know and love this land the best, and you know the best how to take care of your land." He spoke disparagingly of "a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington", and "the whims of regulators located thousands of miles away." He told the people of Utah -- and more specifically, the political and business leaders of the state -- that he would "give back your voice."

But not all locals feel heard or empowered. A Hopi leader and member of the Bears Ears Commission of Tribes said, "Secretary Zinke and Utah politicians say that they have talked to tribes about the president's decision, but none of our Council leaders, executives, or our Commissioners were contacted."

The conviction that locals know best how to care for the land is questionable. If there is a decision about how best to control erosion on a steep trail, the local BLM agent may have better sensibilities than a supervisor on the East coast. But more general management decisions about lands and resources can be significantly skewed by highly local interests.

High Country News issued a special report a few weeks ago, "Profit and Politics", comparing the difference in environmental management between adjacent state and federal lands in North Dakota, New Mexico and Utah. The magazine's editor summarized, "The bottom line is that land generally fares worse under state management." Large corporate interests have more relative power, states have weaker regulations, and influential individuals are more able to drive decisions.

Local control does not guarantee better stewardship. It certainly does not guarantee that the interests national of federal ownership and diverse citizens will be respected.

There's a very telling factor about local interests in the Bears Ears region. Locals in and around Blanding, Utah, had a long pattern of gathering Native American artifacts from the land. That common "family activity" became illegal in the 1970s, but "looting persisted, to the dismay of archeologists and American Indians. Graves were a favorite target because they tend to yield intact objects buried with the dead."

In 2006, a federal sting operation dealing with the illegal collection and sale of antiquities implicated a number of prominent citizens, including two of the county's three commissioners. It was a badly handled investigation, and the prosecutions added to the feeling that the federal government is arrogant and intrusive. But it is also clear that the local's sense of "how to best use the land" included the knowingly illegal theft of cultural artifacts.

When "local control" veers into local entitlement, and the appropriation of sites that belong to the nation and all generations, then decisions and management at a less local level are necessary. Those "distant bureaucrats" may indeed have more wisdom.

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The decision announced this week to slash the size of two national monuments -- by 85% and 45% -- is an indicator of a profound shift in values and priorities. We will be seeing these values shaping policies again and again in the coming years.

The Trump administration, and their counterparts in Congress, will be emphasizing use over protection, extraction over preservation. They will be giving more authority to local interests, especially those local and corporate voices who want the extractive use of resources.

An eco-justice perspective recognizes that use of resources is appropriate, and that local insights are important. Eco-justice also insists, though, that protection and preservation for future generations is a virtue, and that all communities of interest need to be involved in decisions about lands and resources that we own together.

In the coming years of political conflict, I pray that we can be articulate and forceful in putting forth the eco-justice perspective that values all of God's creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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